Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Top 20 Greatest Oscar Best Picture Winners

I am on my way to seeing all 81 of the Best Picture Oscar Winners. I have only 3 more to go! Many of these films have gone down in history as some of the greatest movies ever made. Others are so forgettable that I almost fell asleep. Here's my list of the top 20 Best Picture winners. It was a difficult list to make, as many of the films that didn't make the cut are also fantastic. Hopefully this will be helpful sorting out the best pictures from the Best Pictures. These are my favorites.

(Note: This list is in chronological order, from earliest to most recent, and does not reflect one being better than another; they're all the best!):

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930): This early black-and-white film about WWI stands the test of time with its powerful performances and deep moral questions. The story revolves around a younger German soldier and his journey from optimistic patriotism to disillusionment. It is dark, moving, and timely--it told the story of WWI from the perspective of the enemy at the time (Germany) and was released during the earliest years of Hitler's rise to power.

2. Gone With the Wind (1939): One of the longest running times for a Best Picture winner at about 4 hours, Gone With the Wind is the epic story of the O'Hara family set against the backdrop of the Civil War. There are so many famous scenes and dialogue, it's hard to remember them all! The romantic tension between Scarlett and Rhett is remarkable.

3. Casablanca (1943): One of my favorite films of all time! Well-acted, well-directed, and a great romantic story set in Morocco in the midst of WWII. Absolutely timeless piece of art, with some of the best dialogue ever put into a movie. The complexity of the characters is developed so well, and the romance is so complicated, it draws you right into the story. You literally feel the tension of Ilsa's choice between Rick and Victor!

4. Gentleman's Agreement (1947): A newspaper reporter (played by the phenomenal Gregory Peck) addresses the issue of anti-semitism by passing himself off as Jewish. By doing so, he uncovers the subtle-yet-powerful forces of hatred and discrimination inherent in society. A film that tackles the heart of prejudice against Jews in the mid-40s takes courage, and it's message about the subtlety of hatred is timeless.

5. All About Eve (1950): This film perfectly captures the human capacity for manipulation. The overly ambitious Eve (Anne Baxter) becomes the understudy and assistant for an aging-yet-prideful starlet, Margo Channing (Bette Davis, with a great performance). Eve begins to scheme her way to the top, leaving Margo frustrated and broken in her wake. Each character is incredibly flawed, which allows the audience to empathize while also condemning the characters' actions.

6. On the Waterfront (1954): What a powerful film! There are so many great acting performances, but Marlon Brando as a washed-up boxer wrestling with his conscience is one of the greatest acting performances of all time. The emotion he conveys in the character of Terry Malloy is mesmerizing. Malloy is a man torn between doing what's easy and doing what's right, even if it means hurting the ones that he loves. Take special note of the scene in the taxi cab between Terry and Charlie.

7. Marty (1955): The shortest Best Picture winner at around 90 minutes, this film follows the story of bumbling Marty, a lonely butcher in his mid-30s looking for love. He meets Clara, an ordinary teacher with an equal amount of romantic failures. Marty is sweet but awkward (and a little on the heavy side). This film is a delightful look at two ordinary people falling in love.

8. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): British prisoners-of-war in WWII are forced to build a railway bridge by their Japanese captors. At first, their Colonel (Alec Guinness, otherwise known as Obi-Wan Kenobi) struggles with the Japanese leadership. But ultimately, the prisoners choose to build the bridge for the glory of Britain, all while Allied forces are planning on destroying it. The film addresses both the healthy and dark sides of pride in the context of war.

9. Lawrence of Arabia (1962): In a word: epic. The sweeping cinematography over desert landscape create a beautiful backdrop to the story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole, in one of the best performances ever) and his escapades as a British military officer in the Middle East. Lawrence is a complex and torn character, with loyalties to England, to Arabian culture, and to his own ideals.

10. My Fair Lady (1964): My wife and I love Audrey Hepburn. Enough said. Her portrait of a flower girl's transformation into a proper lady is wonderful.

11. In the Heat of the Night (1967): An intelligent and bold African-American detective is caught up in a murder case in a racist southern town. He must partner with a racist police captain in order to solve the murder of a wealthy white factory owner. The tension between the two policemen is enormous, but the transformation of their relationship from disrespect to friendship is remarkable. I imagine that this film was quite controversial in 1967!

12. The Godfather (1972): It is the #1 movie on IMDB, and possibly the greatest film of all time. While some say that Part II is a better film, Part II doesn't exist without the original. This is the story of the Corleone family's rise to power. With some of the greatest actors coming together as a phenomenal cast, it's a fantastic movie.

13. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975): Jack Nicholson as R. P. McMurphy (think RPM's) is hilarious and eclectic, with moments of both wit and moodiness. Nurse Ratched is one of the greatest villains in film history as the head nurse of the mental ward McMurphy finds himself in. It is both dark and funny, both depressing and hopeful. The film begins to question what true freedom really is and what makes us human.

14. Annie Hall (1977): A Woody Allen classic, this film is witty, spontaneous, and charming. Allen is the neurotic Alvy, while Diane Keaton is fantastic as the insecure Annie Hall (sadly, I haven't seen her do anything better since!). Together, they experience a silly romantic journey in the city of New York. It's so quirky and goofy, yet also an in-depth look at the complexities of romantic relationships from a worldly perspective.

15. Gandhi (1982): He did such an extraordinary job in this role that I believe Ben Kingsley actually is Gandhi. This film is one of my favorites. A biography of a tiny man who radically changed the world through nonviolent means. There are points in the film where his compassion and charisma remind me of another passionate world-changer from 2000 years ago. This film is powerful and emotionally moving.

16. The Silence of the Lambs (1991): One of the only films that could fall under the "horror/thriller" genre to win Best Picture, this film creates an uncomfortable mood of tension with its first-person-perspective camera work and thrilling dialogue. The directing and acting are top notch, and Anthony Hopkins will go down in history for his role as the uber-intelligent serial killer, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Very creepy.

17. Schindler's List (1993): This epic story of hope and grace set against the evil of the Nazis in WWII actually brought tears to my eyes. Not even ashamed to say that. The horrors that happened to the Jews are so great, yet the work of redemption that Schindler goes through in order to save even a few Jews is powerful. It can be difficult to watch, but it is a phenomenal film about grace and hope.

18. American Beauty (1999): This film looks at the dark world of suburban America. That last sentence sounds like an oxymoron--isn't suburbia supposed to be great?--but this film peels away the facade of shallow relationships, revealing a world of loneliness and relational turmoil. Every character has a secret and is struggling to find their way through life. The story revolves around Lester (Kevin Spacey), his increasing disgust with suburban life, and his growing infatuation with one of his teenage daughter's friends.

19. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003): This film represents an amazing trilogy of good vs. evil, and the power of courage and loyalty. There are so many different themes and truths in this fantasy epic, I'm not sure where to begin. You can appreciate it as as action film (enormous battles with dragons!), a romance (Aragorn and Arwen), a story of friendship (Sam and Frodo, Legolas and Gimli, Pippin and Merry), or as simply fantasy (it has dragons and giant spiders and orcs and elves and wizards and talking trees and anything else you can think of).

20. No Country for Old Men (2007): The most recent Best Picture winner--it won only two days ago--but I wonder if it will be remembered as something even greater years from now. It's the story of a rancher who finds two million dollars and the violent men who try to catch him. The themes of violence and sin are noteworthy, as is Javier Bardem's performance as the sociopathic killer, Anton Chigurh. It is tense and gritty, but a perfect commentary on the violence and greed that pervade our culture.

Some Thoughts: When looked at as a whole, the Best Picture winners have a few ongoing themes that reveal some deeper truths about humanity. First, there are many films about war--the atrocities and tensions that come about when people are put in some violent and morally-stricken situations. Second, there is an ongoing theme of love--romance blossoms, two people fall in love, and the audience is swept away. Lastly, there is a theme of character complexity--we see some of the deepest and richest portrayals of people in these films; we see how they handle blessing, loss, rejection, violence, romance, relational strife, etc. 

If all we knew of the world was based on these films, we would have to conclude that our world is a paradox of good and evil, of violence and love, of despair and hope, permeating our entire culture as we travel through the journey of life. We live in a world caught in the tension between sin and redemption. The beautiful thing is, this conclusion rings with resounding truth.

Honorable Mentions: It Happened One Night, Rebecca, The Lost Weekend, The Best Years of our Lives, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Godfather Part II, Ordinary People, Chariots of Fire, Unforgiven, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Gladiator, Million Dollar Baby, The Departed


  1. One day, I hope to see all of the movies that have won Best Picture. It's gonna take a while.

  2. Cam-
    I highly recommend it! It has taken me well over two years to get this far. Many films are very hard to find on DVD, so it takes some searching (especially for films prior to 1940). How many of these films have you seen?

  3. thanks for making this list- makes it more feasible and i don't want to waste my time- definitely not seeing "silence of the lambs" though. no thanks =). i am not into having nightmares for the rest of my life. we actually own a copy of rebecca- vhs style. loved the book even better.

  4. heh, i've seen 6. and of the 80 i have seen like 15 i think. during the montage i counted but i forgot.